By Matt Westby
The fear of the bull run reaches its zenith when a firework explodes over the cool morning skies of Pamplona.
It signals the release of half-a-dozen rampaging animals and in so doing numbs your core with the inescapable realisation that, within a few seconds, you will be literally running for your life.
But no sooner have the echoes faded, fear makes way for total focus, as attention turns to getting out of this thing alive.
The other runners jump repeatedly on their tiptoes, looking down towards the start line in futile attempt to spy the oncoming bulls. Long before they come into view, those at the very front turn and sprint your way as a chorus of screams funnel through the narrow, cobbled streets.
A wave of accelerating bodies sweeps up the hill and engulfs you almost at once, spinning you round and ushering raw instinct to take charge.
Half looking forward to pick a route through the masses and half back to keep watch for the herd, you become part of hazard-strewn migration in which man is just as dangerous as beast.
And then out of the corner of your eye they appear, hurtling towards you at a startling speed.
I ran in the bulls’ path as long my stomach would keep me there, but soon realised I was too close to life’s frontier and veered out of the way with the lead bull just a perilous few metres behind.
In an eye’s blink they were gone again, charging onwards to terrorise the next batch of revellers who had started further along the course.
Everything in me wanted to keep running all the way to the bull ring, yet I was rendered motionless by a rush like no other of adrenaline – that rarest of sensations only an elite few scenarios can trigger.
The Pamplona bull run still had two minutes to run yet, for me, it was over. I had survived it unscathed, until the next day at least.
During the San Fermin festival, however, the bull run is merely the start of the day’s festivities.
After the adrenaline and previous night’s hangover had worn off, we took to wandering the streets of one of Spain’s most fetching cities and absorbing the atmosphere of the eight-day-long celebration.
Ninety-nine per cent of the throngs of people we saw were adorned with the traditional festival clothing of white top and trousers, complemented by red sash and neckerchief. This may appear inconsequential to the layman, but to see a whole city’s population wearing the same thing was a spectacle in itself and a barometer of the community spirit that is so richly preserved in this part of the world. Surely, few other places can compete.
The sangria and San Miguels were back in our hands by the onset of the afternoon and we exploited the relaxed mood by basking in the sun as we casually drank alongside the native Pamplonans.
In the evening, we witnessed the gross mismatch yet cultural phenomenon of the bull fight, before joining a procession of community brass bands that wound its way out of the bull ring and through the city streets until the early hours.
Each band ventured down a different alley until they arrived at a small square in front of the town hall, each taking their turn to play as locals danced routines any outsider would presume have been danced for centuries.
Coming from a nation of antisocial behaviour orders and community segregation, it was truly staggering to see the people of an entire city celebrate together with such unified harmony.
Their ability to dance and sing and drink so happily and uniformally was simply warming to heart.
It showed the San Fermin festival to be about so much more than its notorious Pamplona bull run, yet there can be no arguing that those three minutes of carnage each morning at 8am are its startling highlight.